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Pesticides Tied to California Amphibian Declines

Scientists have confirmed that agricultural contaminants may be an important factor in amphibian declines in California. A study by scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that pesticides from agricultural areas, which are transported to the Sierra Nevada on prevailing summer winds, may be affecting populations of amphibians that breed in mountain ponds and streams.

Dramatic population declines in populations of red-legged frogs, foothills yellow-legged frogs, mountain yellow-legged frogs and Yosemite toads have occurred in California over the last 10 to 15 years, but no single cause for these declines has been positively identified. Declines have been particularly drastic in the Sierra Nevada, which lie east of the intensely agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

"Pesticides by their very nature can result in serious harm to wildlife both by directly killing animals and through more subtle effects on reproduction, development and behavior," said Dr. Donald Sparling, a research biologist and contaminants specialist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. "Unfortunately, now there appears to be a close correlation between declining populations of amphibians in the Sierra Nevada and exposure to agricultural pesticides."

The scientists found proof that pesticides are being absorbed by frogs in both aquatic and terrestrial systems and are suppressing an enzyme called cholinesterase, which is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Modern-day pesticides function by binding with this enzyme in animals and disrupting nervous system activity, usually causing death by respiratory failure. Decreased cholinesterase activity can indicate exposure to certain commonly used pesticides and can be harmful to animals.

The scientists collected 170 tadpole and 117 adult Pacific treefrogs, a species that still is fairly abundant in the Sierra Nevada, from a total of 23 sites in six locations. Adult frogs were also collected from Lassen National Park.

The researchers found that cholinesterase activity levels in tadpoles were significantly lower in the mountains east of the San Joaquin Valley compared with similar sites farther north and east of the Sacramento Valley where agricultural activity is less intense. Similar but less significant trends were seen in adult frogs.

The researchers also measured concentrations of pesticides in the bodies of tadpoles and adults. More than 50 percent of the adult frogs and tadpoles at Yosemite National Park had measurable levels of chlorpyrifos or diazinon, compared to only 9 percent at the coastal reference sites. Frogs at Yosemite National Park also had a higher frequency of detection for chlorpyrifos than those on the coast. Both diazinon and chlorpyrifos degrade very rapidly in organisms, and the detection of either compound indicates recent exposure to the chemicals.

"The presence of pesticides and the decrease in cholinesterase activity in Pacific treefrogs suggest that other species, which are more closely associated with water, could be even more affected,” said Dr. Gary Fellers, a research biologist and amphibian specialist at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center in California. "Mountain yellow-legged frogs, for example, spend two or three years as tadpoles before they metamorphose and then spend considerable time in the water as adults. Melting of pesticide-contaminated snow could provide a pulse of toxic chemicals at a critical time in the life history of these frogs.”